The Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday gathered in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol, in a vestibule built by African slaves, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the beginning of institutionalized American slavery in America.
In August 1619, more than 20 African slaves were brought to Virginia and sold to English colonists, marking the first recorded, forced arrival of enslaved African people in what was to become the United States.
Four hundred years later, prominent figures in the black community praised abolitionists and civil rights leaders at the commemoration in Washington and recounted the history of American slavery and the lasting effects it has had on racial injustice in the United States.
"Owning our history allows us to break free from its shadow, empowering every American of goodwill to have the courage to challenge every day expressions of bigotry and hatred," said Johnetta Cole, president emerita of Spelman and Bennett Colleges.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Majority Whip John Thune also made remarks about congressional efforts to achieve racial and social equality.
"This is not history, this is today," Schumer said. "We cannot separate the story of slavery from the story of America, nor shrink from the hypocrisy embedded from our founding documents."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not attend because aides said he had a scheduling conflict, did address the anniversary on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.
"We should take pride that our American ideals of equality and justice -- not the sins of our forefathers -- are the true, deepest bedrock of this great nation," said McConnell, who has opposed proposed reparations to the descendants of slaves.